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With only one week to explore the city sights, cultural heritage, and beautiful coastline of Nova Scotia we were forced to choose carefully.
Our family had great memories of touring the Great Lakes region of Canada as well as a visit to the Vancouver/Victoria area, so when I scheduled a trip to Maine to visit friends we thought that would be the perfect time to meet up in a part of beautiful Canada that was still on our list. With busy teenagers, however, our time was limited so we chose our destinations with care. The province offers a great free publication entitled The Doers and Dreamers guide to help you plan your trip.
The Halifax airport is northeast of the city with rental cars on site and easy access to the highways into town. This new suburban chain hotel is located next to a soon-to-open outlet shopping center with a variety of chain restaurants nearby. We chose it because of Hilton Honors points, comfort, and complimentary breakfast; it was a 10 to 15 minute drive (across a toll bridge) to the activities we wanted to see in Halifax. If you don't need a car there is also a ferry.
I enjoyed the 3 hour ferry trip from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth(which is a 3 hour drive from Halifax). I did purchase my $69 ticket ahead of time and, of course, you need a passport as with any international travel. Foot passengers can board quickly and if you travel all of the way to the bow there is lovely seating with unobstructed views of the trip. Crew will call attention to sealife; we saw birds, dolphin, whales and seals on our trip. There are snack bars, slot machines, and a very limited giftshop. Note that upon disembarking foot passengers are last through customs so there is a bit of a wait.
Just next door to the ferry was a lunch spot recommended by the local Visitor's Bureau and though it was a bit windy we enjoyed sitting outdoors in the beautiful sunshine. We had an above average lunch, the highlight being Daughter's Lobster Bisque (see menu link for prices and remember to discount for the Canadian exchange rate). We tried our first Seafood Chowder of the trip and gave it 3 stars.
We took about 6 hours to return to Halifax via the scenic Lighthouse route though you could easily spend twice that amount of time visiting museums, beaches and villages. A highlight that we missed but wished we had had time for is the Kejimkujik National Park seaside adjunct.
We spent about an hour walking about this scenic (note, it is somewhat hilly if you have disabled travelers) UNESCO heritage site, taking photos of the buildings and touring some churches. We especially loved the artistic sign posts adorned with metal images of marine life.
As we drove south along St. Margaret's Bay we included a walk around the SwissAir Memorial site in Bayswater. I believe Peggy's Cove is probably the most visited tourist destination in the whole province, however, pulling in at 8pm on a weeknight we had it almost all to ourselves with plenty of light remaining on a summer evening (early morning would be great as well). The docks, fishermans' homes, lighthouse, rocks and sea are a photographer's dream. This was the Son's favorite stop of the trip as he loved leaping around on the large rounded slopes of boulders. As it grew dark we had fish and chips, more seafood chowder (three stars), and a surpisingly good Nova Scotian wine at Sou'Wester Gift and Restaurant. Instead of retracing our steps we traveled east on 333 to Halifax which was scenic but we had some navigation difficulties finding our way. A stop for directions solved our problem but beware the 5 exit rotary at St Margaret's Road and Quinpool!
We planned to spend 12 hours or so enjoying Halifax; the city is easy to navigate with well-marked roads, the attractions are centered in a compact area, and we found ample free or low price parking. There are many great sites that we were not able to fit in; Shakespeare by the Sea, Point Pleasant Park, The Discovery Centre, The Citadel, Casino Nova Scotia and various harbor tours. With so much to offer there is something for everyone.
Natural history museums can be excellent introductions to new areas; you can acquire a basic understanding of much of the geography, wildlife and culture that you will see throughout your stay. Like many of the attractions we visited they offered a family admission rate ($16.50 Canadian before AAA discount). Compared to the Natural History museums in Toronto and Victoria this one was disappointingly small but we spent an hour and enjoyed the exhibits.
We left our car at the museum and enjoyed a walk through the adjacent public gardens with fountains, stream, bridges, swans, and a bandshell. Free concerts are listed in guidebooks.
Only a short drive away is the Canadian immigration museum housed in the historic docks that are now home to massive cruise ships. If a ship is in port it is helpful to arrive here after most of the passengers have disembarked for other locations. There is paid parking and family admission was $21C before AAA discount. We arrived just in time for a showing of an excellent 3D movie and after that joined one of the frequent guided tours through the exhibits. Another gallery held an interesting temporary exhibit on voyageurs. We stopped by the Visitor's Bureau in the adjacent shopping area to get directions to our chosen lunch spot.
Amazing food! With streetside parking right across from the Halifax Common which during our visit was preparing for a week-end concert by Paul MacCartney. Hours are strict as they close between lunch and dinner. Wonderful entrees, specials and a great selection of desserts; we enjoyed the seasonal warm Rhubarb Upsidedown Cake but the Chocolate Hazelnut Torte was truly exceptional. We gave their seafood chowder which included salmon, haddock, clams, and scallops 4 1/2 stars and surprisingly our bill came to less than $20C per person before tip.
This stop may be too commercial for some but we enjoyed the 1 hour tour of the original brewery including tasting, song from costumed interpreters, and pub games (Daughter won the poker hand). Family rate was $41.95C and free parking was available across the street.
This excellent museum a few blocks from the brewery had free admission on Tuesday evenings from 5-8pm so we had time for a drink and appetizer at McKelvie's before entering. Favorite exhibits included the story of the Titanic and the Halifax Wrecked exhibit which tells the story of the huge harbor explosion during WWI. Young children wil enjoy the Theodore the Tug display.
There are plenty of restaurants within walking distance; we wanted casual and light fare and wound up at this fun and funky bistro with lots of locally grown and organic options (menu link at www.thewoodenmonkey.ca). Dinner was above average with very good service (kids loved the roasties and I had an excellent lobster bisque) in a fun atmosphere and at good prices. Our only disappointment was the take home dessert (they were out of the cookies) - a gluten-free brownie that Daughter declared inedible.
On this brief visit we had to make a choice between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton and though both have much to offer we were really drawn to the Highlands National Park of Cape Breton.
It was about a 5 hr drive from our Dartmouth hotel to this historic reconstructed site. Once you cross the causeway to Cape Breton there are a couple of routes to choose from and we decided to drive along the southern shore of Lake Bras D'or as it was our only chance to see the lake. Other than 2 stops for construction work it was a smooth and well-marked route.
The Fortress itself begins with a stop for tickets at the Visitor's Center (family rate was $33.75C) and then a brief bus ride to the Fort where you are greeted by costumed intrepreters. We had a period lunch in the Hotel de la Marine and then spent the next 2 1/2 hours exploring the buildings and exhibits. We were lucky to have bright sunny weather as you spend much of your time outside. Another photographer's dream site.
We were early enough to stop at a nearby restaurant looking over St Ann's Bay for a bowl of chowder (3 stars) before visiting the college.
On Wednesdays during the summer the faculty of this small school offers a ceilidh which is held in the Hall of Clans (there are a few exhibits we wandered through while waiting for the show to start) and it is open to the public at a nominal fee. The show was about an hour and included pipes, drums, fiddle, story, song and dance; our only disappointment was that there was no audience participation.
This was our most expensive lodging for the trip though the owner gave us a slight discount on 2 rooms. We enjoyed the music in Whiff's Lodge and the chance to purchase an adult beverage before bed. In the morning Mother and Dad walked around the property (there is an inventive rowboat and pulley system to cross the slough to the rocky beach) and saw a moose and an eagle. Breakfast was serve yourself with an assortment of cereals, bread, oatcakes, fruit, juice and coffee.
You could easily spend a week exploring this beautiful part of Cape Breton but on our tight schedule we made the best of a long day which included visiting some artisan shops, several hikes/walks, scenic overlooks, photography, and a super lunch. We toured the 185 mile Trail counterclockwise over about 11 hours. Some highlights before we entered the park:
-Woodsmiths (beautiful souveniers)
-Sew Inclined (inspired handmade hats)
-The Cape Smokey Overlook
-The Keltic Lodge
Very good seafood, for a low price and we anjoyed the harbor view. We shared an enormous appetizer of fresh mussels and the tea buns served with the seafood chowder (we gave this one 4 stars) were excellent. We probably spent less than $60C for 4 with drinks and left very full.
Beautiful, beautiful landscape, Lots of accessible hikes and walks, access to the shore or into the woods, and wildlife galore. The Visitor Center is actually over in Cheticamp and we stopped there on the following morning, but you can get a map and info at the Ingonish entry ($19.60C family rate). The Cheticamp center has an orientation video, giftshop, helpful rangers, a topo display of the park, and a good children's area. I'll just include our highlights from our day driving tour:
-The 2.4 mile Middle Head trail
-Playing on the rocks of Green Cove
-The Jack Pine and Jigging Cove trails
-The alternate scenic route north of Neil's Harbor
-The Lone Shieling crofter's hut
-MacIntosh Brook trail and playground equipment
-Moose sighting along the road around Sunrise
-The short Bog loop
-Beaver sighting at Presqu'ile
This was one of the few lodging options in this area that didn't have a two-night minimum. It was a simple roadside motel with a tiny room but it was spotless, including the surprising wood (laminate?) floor. The owners serve light breakfast including good bread from Aucoin's Bakery.
We had hoped to attend the talent night at the local tavern but our innkeeper told us it was 21 and above. We had dinner at The All-Aboard Restaurant; the lobster (only $16.99C), beer, and dessert were very good but the salad and sides (boiled mixed veg out of a bag- ewhh!) were underwhelming. The town has a distinct Acadian feel, very different from the other side of the trail. We do recommend a stop at Charlie's Down Home music for some great advice choosing some local tunes.
Mom and Dad rose early and drove back into the park (your pass is good until the afternoon of the following day after purchase) to walk some of the Skyline Trail. We had really hoped for a moose sighting but despite lots of tracks we had to settle for rabbit, birds and a fox. On our way back to town we picked up a couple of sandwiches at Aucoin's.
Beautiful location for a distillery; Grounds were well kept and there was a restaurant and inn onsite. The tour ($7C per adult) was relatively short, but it was interesting and included a taste of their single malt scotch.
Loved this place! The restaurant doesn't necessarily look like anything special, but we loved every single thing we got there (and at night there is entertainment); Nova Scotia Poutine (yum!), Pulled Pork Sandwich, Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Ham, the Spinach Salad and Mabou Seafood Chowder - our chowder winner of the trip with 5 stars!!! And for dessert we shared the warm gingerbread with spiced rum-butterscotch, fruit compote and whipped cream. Oh my goodness, we overate but it was all delicious.
We had made note of this place on the drive out to Cape Breton and told the kids we would try and stop on the way back to Halifax. Five pm was a perfect time to enter (it's open until 7pm. $11C Family admission) because most visitors were gone and the animals were up and around for feeding time. We had a lovely evening walk observing their selection of native animals; moose, deer, reindeer, wolves, rabbits, beavers, raccoons, porcupines, mountain goats, puma, lynx, birds, all kinds of things! I think this was the teenage daughter's highlight of the trip.
Since we had a very early flight on Sunday we decided to spend Friday and Saturday at this airport hotel. It was just what you expect from these Hilton properties and once again we were able to use our points.
What fun! We planned on buying breakfast from vendors as we wandered through the market which takes place every Saturday down on the waterfront in the old Alexander Killian's Brewery (there is parking across the street). It is a bit of a maze, and crowded but full of treasures. Along with crepes, cherries, chocolate, and noodles we bought jewelry and fun headbands.
After the Farmer's Market we spent some time touring the churchyards and shops in the area. Our teenagers loved this hip and trendy candy shop and found gifts for friends.
We drove back over the bridge to the Dartmouth side to enjoy this celebration of Gaelic heritage (free parking on the street, $35C for family pass). There was food, drink, clan displays, music, dance and - above all - strength events that were a lot of fun to watch. Afterwards we walked down to the ferry docks and had a drink and a snack and enjoyed a walk along the harbor path watching the boats. The ferrys were more crowded than usual with people heading over to the MacCartney concert but the 10 minute trip across can be a good alternative to driving.
Since we didn't have MacCartney tickets we decided to dine on the Dartmouth side and drove out to this Chowhound recommendation. There was a good jazz trio playing Beatles music in honor of the concert, but it felt as if the place was understaffed for a Saturday night - our waiter was about 17 and the service was distinctly spotty. There is an amazing scotch menu which we didn't partake of. Overall it was an average meal at slightly higher prices than we had paid elsewhere. We gave their seafood chowder 3 stars.
Nova Scotia is a hidden gem of a vacation destination with something to offer just about anyone. We just touched the surface and there is so much more to do; kayaking on the north shore, riding a raft on the Shubie tidal bore, taking a sail from Ingonish, hiking the Mabou Highlands etc. For a southerner, the mild July weather with high temperatures in the 70sF was another bonus. I hope to go back again with more time to explore.